On my ever-growing catch-up list at the moment: The Corrections (only just finished), Wolf Hall (people keep borrowing it) and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m also currently reading in parallel David Kessler’s The End of Overeating and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, so they’ll go on the list too in due course. But for now: The Road.
To say this is a bleak book doesn’t really nail the complete, all-encompassing, consistent grimness of the world described in this tale of an America lying in the wake of a massive, possibly global (we’re never told) disaster. There’s a comparison to be made here with The Death of Bunny Munro, in that both feature father and son pairings at the centre of the narrative, but unlike Cave’s novel the boy character in The Road doesn’t lighten the tone but does exactly the reverse: he makes everything seem more desperate, pitiful and dangerous.
I’m not well-acquainted with McCarthy, but apparently he’s famous for his spare, unadorned, ultra-direct writing style, even to the point that he eschews all but the most basic punctuation (there are no speech marks or semicolons and precious few commas, for example). Much of The Road is made up of dialogue between father and son, of which the following is completely typical:
You think we’re going to die, don’t you?
I don’t know.
We’re not going to die.
But you don’t believe me.
I don’t know.
Why do you think we’re going to die?
I don’t know.
Stop saying I don’t know.
The Road is not the kind of book you enjoy, as such, but it’s certainly admirable in its purity of intent and execution. The economical style and the macabre pull of the narrative – what dreadfulness is around the corner? – mean that you can’t help but read it quickly. It’s also an extremely successful evocation of an unimaginable world. McCarthy achieves this partly by giving chilling descriptions of the landscape, as here:
Across the fields to the south he could see the shape of a house and a barn. Beyond the trees and curve of the road. A long drive with dead grass. Dead ivy along a stone wall and a mailbox and a fence along the road and the dead trees beyond. Cold and silent. Shrouded in the carbon fog.
And partly by making this dead world come to descriptive life by picking out the remnants of the detritus of the ordinary world that came before, as here:
The grass between the house and the barn looked untrodden. He crossed to the porch. The porch screening rotted and falling away. A child’s bicycle. The kitchen door stood open and he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway. Cheap plywood paneling curled with damp. Collapsing into the room. A red formica table.
Obviously what the novel also has, as captured in the last passage (the grass looks untrodden), is the constantly felt threat of discovery, surveillance by others, capture and worse. People are bad news. Arguably the moral of the story.